10 common myths about evolution

Evolution is the single most important concept in all of biology. It is absolutely vital for understanding both the history of life on earth and why our modern organisms have their current traits and behaviors. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern science. Much of the confusion stems from creationists’ faulty arguments, but even those who accept evolution often don’t really understand it. Therefore, I am going to describe and debunk ten of the most common myths and misconceptions about evolution.

 

Myth 1: Evolution is just a theory

This is arguably the most common myth about evolution, and it is probably creationists’ most well worn trope. It is also a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. I’ve explained this in more detail before, but briefly, evolution is both fact and theory depending on exactly what we are talking about. The idea that all modern organisms (including humans) evolved from a single celled organism over a period of millions of years is a scientific fact. It has been confirmed by the fossil record, genetics, biogeography, etc. Like it or not, it’s a fact, but there is also a theory component. You see, theories explain facts. So, the theory of evolution by natural selection states that natural selection has been the dominant mechanism causing species to evolve. In other words, it is a fact the evolution occurred, and the theory of evolution by natural selection explains how that evolution occurred. Indeed, it is a common misconception that Charles Darwin came up with the idea of evolution. In reality, many scientists before him thought that organisms evolved, but they couldn’t figure out how or why they evolved. So, what Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) did that was so extraordinary, was to provide a mechanism that drove evolutionary change (i.e., natural selection).

Finally, it is worth noting that theories are actually among our highest forms of scientific certainty. They have been rigorously tested and consistently make accurate predictions. So gravity (i.e., the theory of universal gravity), the idea that all matter is made of atoms (i.e., atomic theory), the idea that all living things are made of cells (i.e., cell theory), the idea that bacteria make you sick (i.e., the germ theory of disease), etc. are all “just theories.”

 

Myth 2: We evolved from monkeys/apes

we did not evolve from apes but we share a common ancestor with themWe did not evolve from modern apes, but we share a common ancestor with them. In other words, if we back the clock up a few million years, we will find an ape-like ancestor whose populations split, and different groups went down different evolutionary paths. One group evolved into us, and another group evolved into chimps. So we and chimps share a great, great, great…great grandparent who went extinct a few million years ago, but we did not evolve from chimps, monkeys, or modern apes.

 

Myth 3: Evolution conflicts with the second law of thermodynamics

People often  describe the second law of thermodynamics as, “the disorder of a system always increases,” which leads people to erroneously claim that evolution violates the second law because it says that overtime life becomes more organized. The problem is that the above definition is a terrible one which misrepresents the law and overlooks several key components.

The best way to understand the second law is in conjunction with the first law. The first law (also known as the law of the conservation of energy) states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change forms (e.g., it can go from potential energy to kinetic energy). The second law then describes the natural flow of energy within a system (i.e., the direction in which the changes take place). Both of these are dealing with energy states, and taken together, they say that a system cannot go from a low energy state to a high energy state without the input of additional energy. The classic example of this is a diving board. Someone standing on a tall diving board is in a higher energy state (i.e., they have more potential energy) than someone standing at the bottom of the ladder. So, to a physicist, the person at the bottom is more “disorganized” than the person at the top, because the person at the top has more potential energy. In technical terms, this concept of disorganization is known as entropy, and the person at the top of the board would have less entropy than the person at the bottom.

Notice, these laws do not state that it is impossible for systems to go from a low energy state to a high energy state. Rather, they say that the transition cannot take place without the input of additional energy. In other words, it is completely possible for the person at the bottom of the ladder to climb up onto the board and reach a higher energy state (i.e., become more organized/have less entropy), but doing so requires an input of energy (i.e., they have to use energy to move their muscles and climb the ladder). Another way to describe this is to say that a closed system cannot become more organized, at least in the long term (a closed system is one that receives no energy from outside sources). These laws do not, however, state that an open system cannot become more organized (an open system is one that does receive energy from outside sources).

Now, let’s apply all of that to evolution. The earth is most definitely an open system. It is constantly receiving energy from the sun. In fact, the sun drives nearly all life on earth. So, since the earth is an open system, there is no conflict between evolution and the thermodynamics. Let me use an example to prove that. I think we can all agree that a tree is more organized (has a higher energy state) than a seed. So, if thermodynamics worked the way that creationists claim, it should be impossible for a seed to grow into a tree, but it clearly is possible for seeds to grow. Why? Quite simply, because the earth is an open system. Even so, it is entirely possible for life to become more organized because organisms are constantly receiving energy from the sun (or from food which grew because of energy from the sun). So there is no conflict between evolution and thermodynamics.

Note: Myth#3 was edited on 5-Sept-15

 

Myth 4: We haven’t found any “missing links”

Odontochelys a turtle ancestor, missing link, intermediate fossil.

Odontochelys is a transitional fossil between turtles and their lizard like ancestors, complete with partially formed shell.  Image via Chun et al. 2008.

The term “missing link” is a misnomer because they aren’t missing. We have hundreds of fossils that clearly represent transitions between two groups of organisms. Creationists invariably claim that these fossils are simply uniquely created organisms that happen to look like transitions, but this is a clear and enormous ad hoc fallacy because evolution predicted the existence of these fossils. If, for example, I asked you to describe what an intermediate between a turtle and its lizard-like ancestor would look like, you would inevitably describe a creature with half the features of a lizard and half the features of a turtle (e.g., a partially formed shell, a turtle like skull that still retains lizard like teeth, a somewhat specialized neck, etc.). Well guess what, that’s exactly what we see in the fossil record with species like Odontochelys and Pappochelys which have some lizard features and some turtle features. Similarly, if I asked you to describe an intermediate between a dinosaur and a bird, you would probably describe a featured dinosaur with partially formed wings and some skeletal modifications like an enlarged breastbone, but which still retains some dinosaur features like teeth. Indeed, the creature that you are imagining closely matches fossils like Archaeopteryx, Confuciusornis, and Jeholornis. The same is true for the transition for fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to mammals, etc.

In each of those cases, we have multiple fossils that are exactly what we would expect if evolution was true, and the only way that you would reject the notion that these are intermediates is if you were already convinced that intermediates don’t exist. This is the fundamental problem with creationism (and a big part of why it is pseudoscience). Creationists have determined ahead of time that no intermediates exist, so no matter how perfect a transitional fossil may be, they will always claim that it is just a unique species that happens to look like a transitional (I explained this in much more detail here and you can find a good list of intermediates here [yes, I know Wikipedia isn’t a good source, but this list is actually quite useful and you can use it as a starting point to look up the details of specific fossils in more reputable sources]).

 

Myth 5: Evolution isn’t science because it hasn’t been observed/repeated

First, we have to specify what we mean by “evolution.” You see, evolution on a small scale has been observed numerous times. Bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics is the most well-known example of this, but there are many others. For example, we have been able to observe finches on the Galapagos evolve and change their beak sizes in response to droughts (Grant and Grant 2002). We have even been able to observe entirely new species form (lots of good sources here).

Nevertheless, when most people make this claim, there are generally referring to evolution over a long period of time. In other words, they are saying that we have not observed or repeated something like a relative of the T. rex evolving into a chicken. First, it is important to realize that there is no real difference between “microevolution” and “macroevolution.” Macroevolution is just an accumulation of microevolutionary steps. So if evolution on a small scale occurs (as has been observed and experimentally demonstrated) then ipso facto, evolution on a large scale occurs. One inevitably leads to the other (more details here).

Finally, the idea that we have to directly observe something and repeat the event itself in order for it to be science is a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Most science is not based on direct observation of the actual event of interest. Rather, we observe clues that are left behind by the event, and we infer information about the event from them. For example, no one has directly observed two hydrogen atoms joining an oxygen atom to form a water molecule, but we know that it happens because we can conduct chemistry experiments which give observable results that we can use to infer the sharing of electrons that lets those atoms combine. Similarly, we constantly solve crimes without either observing or repeating them because there are clues left behind that we can use to infer who committed the crime (this is known as forensic science). Even so, we do not need to observe a dinosaur evolving into a bird to know that it happened because there are clues left behind in the fossils, DNA, etc., which we use to infer evolution. There is nothing unscientific about that, and, in fact, it is how most science works. We make predictions like, “if and only if birds evolved from reptiles, then birds should share more DNA with reptiles than any other group.” We then test those predictions, and when they consistently come true, we conclude that our hypothesis is most likely correct. That is the scientific method at its finest (I explained this in more detail here).

 

Myth 6: Individuals evolve

Populations evolve not individuals. Evolution is just a change in the genetic composition of a population over time, so, since individuals cannot change their genetic composition, they cannot evolve. For example, if a drought comes along and destroys all seed-bearing plants except for ones with very large seeds, an individual bird with a small bill cannot evolve in response to that drought. In other words, it cannot change its genetic makeup and alter its bill size to eat the large seeds. In biological terms, it cannot adapt. As a result, the birds that have small bills will get less food and produce less offspring than the birds with large bills. This means that there will be more genes for large bills in the next generation. So the population will evolve and adapt to the drought, but the individuals will not evolve.

 

Myth 7: Evolution has a direction or goal

People often talk about evolution “trying to accomplish” something, or they may describe primates and other mammals as being “more evolved” than other animals, but statements like that are extremely problematic because they inherently imply that evolution has a direction or goal, which it doesn’t. Biologist often like to say that, “evolution is blind.” All that evolution can do is adapt an organism for its current environment and way of life (I’m talking specifically about evolution by natural selection here). Evolution has no foresight, and it is completely incapable of predicting what will be useful in the future, so a trait that has been selected for thousands of generations may suddenly become harmful if the environment changes.

Because evolution just adapts organisms to their current environment and way of life, it doesn’t really make sense to describe one species as “more evolved” than the other. For example, a monkey is not “more evolved” than the fly that gets its moisture from the monkey’s poop. The monkey is certainly more complex, but it’s not really more evolved because both the monkey and the fly are extremely well suited to their way of life. If you try to say that the monkey is more evolved than the fly, then you are implying that evolution has a direction, which it doesn’t.

Finally, this explains the common creationist criticism that certain species have “evolved backwards” (e.g., penguins lost the ability to fly, whales went back into the ocean, etc.). This again assumes that evolution has a direction or goal, when in reality, it’s just adapting organisms to their current environment. So, at one point in time, flight was useful so evolution selected for it and produced flying birds, but as those birds invaded the antarctic, the ability to fly was not as important as the ability to swim and stay warm, so evolution selected against adaptations for flight and produced penguins.

 

Myth 8: Some systems are too complex to evolve

This is one of the oldest criticisms of evolution, and it has recently resurfaced under the moniker “irreducible complexity.” The basic idea is that some systems are too complex to evolve because they aren’t functional until all of the parts are in place. For example, an eye that is missing a single piece no longer sees, and a bacterial flagellum that is missing a single protein can no longer act as a flagellum. So the argument claims that these systems could not have evolved because there would have been steps that served no useful function, and nature could not have selected for those steps. The problem is that this argument ignores the fact that evolution is blind. Traits don’t need to function for some ultimate final product in order to be selected for. Rather, if they provide any useful function at all, nature will select them. Indeed, no one has ever been able to find a truly irreducible system, and we have evolutionary pathways that explain how complex systems evolve. For example, an early precursor of the eye would have simply involved a few light sensitive cells (much like some flatworms have). They don’t function as an eye, but they still function, so nature will select for them. Similarly, the proteins that make up a flagellum all serve other functions in the cell, and we have even figured out a step-wise series of events that would form a flagellum with each step serving a useful function for the cell, even though only the final step actually serves as a flagellum. So there is just no truth to the notion that some systems are too complex to evolve (I explained this in more detail here).

 

Myth 9: Evolution describes the formation of the universe/the first cell

I often hear people argue that, “evolution isn’t true because blah, blah, blah…big bang” or some nonsense about how we haven’t figured out how the first cell formed. Beyond the specific issues with those arguments (which I won’t go into here), those arguments are totally irrelevant to evolution. The big bang theory deals with the formation of the universe, and abiogenesis deals with the formation of life. Evolution only comes into play after life formed. So, even if you managed to disprove the big bang or disprove abiogenesis, you would not have in any way shape or form disproved evolution. Indeed, there are some people who think that God created the first cell, then let evolution take its course. In other words, they reject abiogenesis but accept evolution (to be clear though, there is no good scientific reason to reject abiogenesis or the big bang).

 

Myth 10: Evolution is faith based

To anyone who makes this claim, I would like to know which part exactly you think is faith based. As I explained in #5, the fact that we did not directly observe millions of years of evolution doesn’t disqualify it as science. In fact, evolution is one of the most well supported ideas in all of science, and if you actually read Origin of the Species it is packed with evidence. Further, Darwin was an exceptional scientist and made clear predictions about what future researchers should find if his theory was correct. For example, he explicitly stated that we should find intermediate fossils, and we have (see #4). Think about that for a second. Evolution predicted the existence of organisms decades before we found them. That is an utterly incredible feat. Similarly, evolution predicted a strong agreement between the fossil record and genetics, and, once again, its predictions have come true with remarkable consistency. So if you are going to claim that evolution is based on faith, I want to know precisely what part of it you think is faith based, because there is no aspect of it which I cannot back up with empirical data.

Finally, it is worth noting that, contrary to popular perception, evolution is not inherently atheistic. Darwin was not an atheist and there are scientists who both accept evolution and believe in God. Evolution is not based on faith, and it doesn’t stem from a philosophical or religious desire to reject God. Rather, it is a scientific fact which is supported by an insurmountable mountain of evidence.

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21 Responses to 10 common myths about evolution

  1. Joe McLaughlin says:

    as a Theistic Evolutionist, I have a problem with the ad hoc naming of people who adhere to a 6 day literalist to any anti-evolutionist stance as “creationist” or “intelligent designers”. Some of us see “the hand of God” in all of creation, and have no problem with science, evolution, the big bang, etc. Some of us view it more like Paley (who influenced Darwin) who have a “naturalistic theology”, that God works through nature, not against it (revelation theology) – and have an “almost everything can be explained through logic because God is logical” vs the “wham boom pow there it is” approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hardly “ad hoc” when the creationists are doing it themselves: https://www.google.com/search?q=cdesign+proponentsists

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I have in fact previously written posts stating that it is possible to accept science and the Bible
      https://thelogicofscience.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/an-introduction-to-theistic-evolution-using-science-to-interpret-the-bible/

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      • Cole says:

        I take some issue with your view on this. To you, “not reading the Bible literally” seems to mean “read the Bible literally until you find something you *know* to be false. That’s a metaphor.” That’s not fair. We need to use the text itself to decide whether a verse should be read as literal or metaphor, not our advanced scientific understanding. Young earthers are in this way more intellectually honest, I think. The creation story was not an allegory (or not JUST an allegory) as evidenced by the fact that two gospel writers trace Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first man. Paul makes it clear there was no death before Adam sinned. And on and on As a creationist, I trounced theistic evolutionists because their games were so obvious. They were eating their cake and having it too.

        Are you trying for an olive branch, or do you actually believe God used evolution to create us, and that this is in any way consistent with the Bible?

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          As I explained in this post, you are actually being extremely inconsistent because there are plenty of sections of the Bible where you use science to interpret the Bible (such as Joshua). So unless you interpret Joshua literally, your argument is invalid.
          https://thelogicofscience.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/an-introduction-to-theistic-evolution-using-science-to-interpret-the-bible/

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          • Cole says:

            You seem not to understand my point. The author of Joshua undoubtedly believed the sun and moon revolved around the earth, and so, yes, I *do* interpret that passage literally. You are being unfair because you aren’t using the text itself to decide whether a passage is literal or not. Rather, when you run into something which modern science has rendered problematic, you reinterpret the text to mean something the author did not intend it to mean.

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        • “Paul makes it clear there was no death before Adam sinned.” JK Rowling makes it clear Harry Potter survived an attack from Lord Voldemort.

          I mean, really – you’re obviously not a stupid person, why do you believe the writings of people clearly making fiction up as they go along with no evidence whatsoever to be true?

          Liked by 1 person

    • Adam B says:

      They took on the names of Creationist and created the term Intelligent Design as a guise for it to try and get it into schools. We merely but use the names they chose for themselves to describe themselves.

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  2. Sudipta Mukherjee says:

    I dont think the description of second law of thermodynamics is correct. The fact that one cannot go from a lower energy state to a higher energy state without addition of energy is correct but is not second law of thermodynamics (it is the first law ie energy is conserved).Second law of thermodynamics states that entropy of a closed system (like the universe) always increases for a spontaneous process. Ofcourse biological systems are not closed ones. Consequently Gibbs free energy is a much better measure of thermodynamics of such systems. Gibbs free energy accounts for both heat (enthalpy) and entropy and the second law of thermodynamics recast in gibbs free energy term states that for spontaneous processes, change in Gibbs free energy of the system is negative. Ofcourse changes which have positive gibbs free energy change can also happen if it is coupled with a larger negative gibbs free energy change process (like photosynthesis driven by solar light, muscle movements driven by respiration etc).
    Overall everything happens so that the entropy of the universe always increases, so any order in our system will always be offset by disorder in surrounding. Order/disorder again are ways in which energy can be distributed and not necessarily in terms of structure as is often mistakenly thought. So evolution do not violate second law of thermodyanmics in the same way reactions producing complex molecules from simpler ones dont.

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    • Cleon W. ross says:

      Absolutely right on the money. How could any scientist use the wrong law in a good treatise?

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      After re-reading the post, I see the point that you and Cleon are making, and it does seem that my explanation strayed into the realm of the first law. I have attempted to clarify my argument and correct my errors. Thank you both for pointing this out.

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  3. J says:

    At myth 6: “individuals cannot change *there genetic composition”. *Their.

    Also, this is only partly true. See epigenetics.

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    • So far epigenetics has only dangeld the carrot. Observed changes appear to last only a few generations at most and the genome doesn’t change. Rather a fork in the road set up by the genome is selected for by outside influeners such as gender.

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  4. Unknown User says:

    #1 and #10 does not jive with what science is. A scientific fact is “what we believe we know based on the evidence in record and our understanding of it” science is NEVER EVER EVER^2398472359876 100% certain about anything, period. This basic concept allows us to update scientific knowledge as new information comes in.When you talk like this you are as bad as the people who say god is an authority and denying science. SCIENCE IS NOT LAW, SCIENCE IS NOT HOW IT IS, say unto thine self; reality is reality no matter what science indicates. Science is a process and the knowledge gained by that process. It is not to be treated like religious dogma.

    Faith based… Faith is nothing more than trust. Period. When you say you trust or have faith someone, it is eternally based on your past experience and other evidence. If you are keen on science, and the method, and believe/know that science is ‘best effort, can be wrong’ then you are never 100% certain of any line item or fact. That kinda inflexibility science does not tolerate. Science changes its mind, based on the evidence in record. If you believe that something is 100% truth then why/how can it change? It’s serious flaw in actual logic. I know it pisses people off because people think of god and no evidence when the word faith is spoken, But you have to let go of emotional horse shit like that. ALL SCIENCE IS FAITH BASED; it is faith in a process and the people’s ability to determine what is most likely true. It is faith that the answer we have after our hard work and thinking is most likely true.

    It is more important to explain the differences between faith based on no evidence and faith based on actual evidence. It is important to drive home the point that trust and faith are, as part of popular usage, interchangeable words. One does not need gods or religion for faith. One only has to be humble and say “I have faith in that” as opposed to “I am certain that is true”. The later is anti-science.

    It drives me crazy to no end when I hear respectable people like Dawkins or Tyson, who are brilliant people whom I cant say enough good things about, embrace this illogical and fucktarded line of thinking. It is so backwards. SCIENCE IS NOT TRUth. SCIENCE IS NOT REALITY. SCIENCE IS WHAT WE BELIEVE IS MOST LIKELY TRUE BASED ON THE EVIDENCE IN RECORD. Faith CAN require what ever the person investing faith demands. *WE*, people like us, trust science to sort it all out. I demand the methods, the peer review, the constant revisiting of old ideas that some might consider ‘long solved’. And when you misrepresent actual logic and reality by denying that science requires faith in the practice, people, and findings you blaspheme against actual science. It’s irksome and those who do this need a boot to the head.

    If you are angry because theist point this out then you are an idiot who has let the emotional content of all this cloud your vision. The theists are right. It is faith based. It is different than their belief in an imaginary asshole in the sky who rains down death and sends you to hell while telling you he loves you like the aliens in independence day saying they come in peace as they blast your face with their lasers. We require actual evidence and all that I spewed of.

    Remember; what you believe you know is subject to change at any moment… Tell me again how what you know is truth…

    Great piece other than those two points.

    (Note, I am an atheist who, based on the evidence in record has faith in/trusts/believes to be true that evolution is true, tho our understanding everything that has happened and why is incomplete.)

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    • Mr or Ms or Mrs Unknown User: While true you reduce everything known, unknown, possible, or impossible to the brain in a vat argument. Yes, we may be brains in vats but it’s a silly way to live. Capital-S science recognizes the philosophical nature of the work that’s done and the assumptions that it rests on. We never know, never declare fini, and never slam the gavel for the last time. But mixing up faith, trust, and evidence is just too messy. You might as well shrug your shoulders and say it’s just your best guess.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      You’re post is a massive strawman. I never said that evolution was absolutely true. Rather, I said that it is a fact, which simply means that based on all available evidence, it is true (that is very different from proclaiming that it is definitely true). I recently wrote a post on the topic of scientific certainty, which you can find here
      https://thelogicofscience.com/2015/08/16/settled-science-part-1-is-science-ever-actually-settled/

      Faith is not simply trust. Rather, it is accepting something without evidence for it. For example, I do not have faith in gravity, rather I accept it based on overwhelming evidence. Even so, I do not have faith in evolution, but I accept it based on overwhelming evidence.

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    • “ALL SCIENCE IS FAITH BASED”

      Wrong. Science is based on the idea that results are repeatable. If a scientist tells me something is true, I don’t have to take that on faith, I can go and try the same experiment myself to check that it is indeed true.

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  5. Dennis Goos says:

    Because the theory of evolution is unable to explain the existence of any supernatural beings, it is, de facto, atheist. Believing in the supernatural is clearly a denial of evolution theory. The theory of evolution does not stem from a desire to reject god but it describes a world where no god is in evidence, needed or desirable. That is a description of atheism.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      That doesn’t make sense. It’s not that evolution can’t explain God (if he exists), but rather it is science as a whole. Science is, by definition, limited to the study of the physical universe. It is completely incapable of dealing with questions like “does God exist” or “is the meaning to life.” That does not, however, make it atheistic.

      Further, making God unnecessary and saying that he doesn’t exist are two very different things. Saying that the world can exist without God doesn’t mean that it does exist without God, and there are plenty of theists who accept evolution and believe in God. Many of them simply think that God sparked the big bang, then let the universe run from there (including evolution).

      Liked by 2 people

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